SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Pope Benedict on Mystical Experiences

August 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Church Teaching, Dan Burke, Mystical Experience

by Jimmy Akin Thursday, December 02, 2010

Right now in his weekly catecheses, Pope Benedict is giving a series of meditations on female saints from the Middle Ages. Many of them are mystics, and in the first meditation–on St. Hildegard of Bingen–he offers his thoughts on some of the marks of a genuine mystic.

He states:

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God.

I think it would be a mistake, here, to assume that the Pope is saying that all genuine mystics must have the kind of fears that St. Hildegard did regarding the authenticity of her visions. One can easily imagine a child visionary, for example, being utterly convinced of the divine origin of his or her experiences. But with the reflectivity of adulthood, a visionary should be willing to acknowledge the possibility that their experiences might be the product of the imagination or otherwise not come from God. The key thing, though, was St. Hildegard’s willingness to submit the phenomena she experienced to evaluation by others–something that indeed should be the response of a true visionary, for Scripture tells us:

Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good [1 Th. 5:19-21].


Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world [1 Jn. 4:1].

Pope Benedict continues:

She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.

Given that, right now, there is a commission appointed by the Holy See evaluating the mystical phenomena reported at Medjugorje, it is hard not to review the Medjugorje situation in terms of what Pope Benedict says about St. Hildegard–particularly with the noted controversy between the visionary community and the local bishops.

While we will have to wait and see what the commission determines regarding that situation, Pope Benedict’s remarks on St. Hildegard provide a window into the kind of thinking that the commission is likely to apply.

What do you think?

Published With Permission from the National Catholic Register


Art for this post regarding Pope Benedict on Mystical Experiences — a Jimmy Akin Reprint: mirror detail of Sense of Sight, Annie Swynnerton, 1898, PD-US author's life plus 70 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, the High Calling Seminary Preparation Program, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. In 2018, he launched the annual Avila Summit held at Hanceville, Alabama. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband, father of four, and grandfather of one, the President and Chief Operating Officer of EWTN News, Inc., a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer, speaker and pilgrimage director who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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